Jagdeesh Mann: Modi Is Reaping The Chaos From The Divisions He Has Sown
The more the farmers dig in their heels, the more out of touch Modi and his ministers look
January 30, 2021 | 3 min. read
Republic Day celebrations in India are usually a stately, if not boring, affair that marks the country’s constitution coming into effect in 1950. Official events, gatherings, and parades across the subcontinent serve to commemorate India’s version of its Declaration of Independence and the country’s transition from a British colony to the modern India we know today.
But in Delhi this year two ‘events’ were held for the first time ever. What emerged from the scheduling clash - in a capital full of protests and clouded in tear gas - is a lesson in cultivation from India’s farmers to their government: the political divisions one sows eventually becomes the chaos they reap.
Since September 2020, Indian farmers have been protesting, with little success, against a series of new agricultural laws passed by the country’s BJP government - an administration that has ruled by pitting Hindus against Muslims, upper castes against lower castes, and now corporations versus family farmers.
The laws, which were hastily rubber-stamped through Parliament, are designed to open the country’s produce markets to agribusiness conglomerates many of which are closely allied with the BJP. The laws affect a staggering fifty percent of India’s workforce that earns its livelihood from the agricultural sector, none of whom were consulted on the reforms.
In agrarian states like Punjab, the average farm holding is nine acres and operated by family units. These and other Indian farmers believe the new bills will lead to the inevitable revocation of the country’s Minimum Standard Pricing (MSP), or minimum price floors, and with this, precipitate the demise of their livelihood, culture, and centuries-old way-of-life.
So, for the past two months, farmers from across the country, and particularly from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, have rolled their tractors into the capital and camped out by the thousands. They have held mostly peaceful protests while enduring police brutality in seeking to engage the government in talks. Overseas support groups in Canada, the US, Australia, UK, and other countries have held numerous rallies for the cause.
And so it was on Republic Day this week, India’s farmers held their own commemoration. While Delhi’s marquee Rajpath military parade featured its usual marching troops and displays of military hardware reminiscent of the old days of the Soviet Union, the farmer’s organized their own tractor rally (#TractorRallyDay) on the outskirts of the city.
In the showdown between missiles and farm machinery, it was not even close. The farmers clearly won the day and stole the media thunder, but this was not because Delhi was overrun by farmers.
Rather, for the first time in the Modi administration’s six-year reign, the government received a resounding pushback that its citizens - or at least one major cohort of the population - is resolved to protect their fundamental rights to freedom and equality, and from exploitation, as enshrined in the country’s constitution.
This pushback, fittingly delivered on Republic Day, has been a long time coming for the Modi government. It is the fruit seeded by the administration’s arrogant style of governance, of fostering division rather than building alliances and coalitions, and implementing knee-jerk policies.
The examples are many.
In 2016, a hastily legislated demonetization policy invalidated 86% of the country’s banknotes leaving the masses to scramble and even die waiting in mile-long bank lineups.
In 2019, the government, again almost overnight, abrogated Article 370 and converted Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories.
And this past year during the pandemic, the BJP again ruling by fiat, declared a 21-day lockdown with four hours notice that left millions of migrant workers stranded in cities or forced to walk hundreds of miles to their rural villages.
Where there has been opposition to these hamfisted policies, the government has turned up the volume on its propaganda channels, some of which include the country’s largest media outlets, to spread disinformation and discredit criticism by labeling the farmers as ‘Sikh terrorists’. India ranks a dismal 142nd out of 180 countries on the press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
And where that still is not sufficient to silence opposition, the Modi government will silence all chatter by pulling the plug on the Internet, such as it did during farmer’s tractor rally in parts of Delhi. This tactic was also employed in 2019 in Kashmir where the blackout lasted for over 200 days.
It all makes for a demoralizing atmosphere in what is supposed to be the world’s largest democracy. But Punjab and Haryana farmers are not just providing the first significant challenge to a Modi government that seems intent on turning the country into an ‘elected autocracy’. They are emboldening the opposition. In late 2020, millions of other Indian workers joined the farmers in a general protest that some estimate encompassed up to 250 million people.
These farmers are also demonstrating a way forward for a country growing weary of division and that communities across India’s various faith groups can work in solidarity.
So while the Modi government has celebrated the impending construction of a Hindu temple on the violence-marred site of a razed mosque in Ayodhya, Sikh farmers in Delhi have built makeshift schools, hospitals, and free kitchens, making themselves welcome residents of their new communities. Groups like Khalsa Aid, which was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, have been selflessly at work serving the farmers and people living around the protest camps.
The more the farmers dig in their heels, the more out of touch Modi and his ministers look and it is unsettling a government that has become too comfortable in ruling by controlling the narrative, the media, and communication channels rather than building consensus.
Punjab and Haryana’s farmers are looking for a repeal of the law so they can go back to their lands and tilling the soil. But what they have offered the Modi government in exchange is far more valuable - an example of a better way to lead the nation forward.
Jagdeesh Mann is a journalist based in Vancouver. You can find him on Twitter at @JagdeeshMann.
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